Social Venture Partners

When most individuals think of philanthropy, thoughts stray to large companies with deep pockets and wealthy CEOs seeking to establish their legacy. However, for the average professional, broad philanthropic gestures are typically far out of reach.

Social Venture Partners (SVP) offers up a different solution and a highly unique business model within the non-profit sector. In SVP Waterloo Region's world, there are partners rather than donors, and cheques (or in the SVP vernacular - investments) are married with expertise from advisors who take a long-term, hands on role helping non-profit beneficiaries build the organizational capacity to succeed and make a true difference in the communities they serve.

SVP Waterloo Region was established in 2010, an initiative driven by a core group of community and business leaders actively seeking a different model for giving back. Rosemary Smith, CEO of The Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation (KWCF) had heard about the SVP International organization in the past, and had been actively seeking the right business partners to get a local member organization off the ground in Waterloo. She introduced the concept to Tim Jackson and Jacqui Murphy, founders of Tech Capital Partners. Jackson and Murphy, intrigued by the SVP's unique concept of venture philanthropy, travelled to Dallas to the SVP annual meeting. After just a few days, they were hooked - ready to establish an SVP member organization in Waterloo.

"I'm very active in the community, and one of the things that excited me most about the SVP model is the inclusiveness of the concept," says SVP partner Jacqui Murphy. "So often, volunteer work is done on an individual basis. You can't work with your wife or husband on the same committee, or easily bring your friends on board. SVP gives people in the community this awesome vehicle for working together. You can hang out with the people you enjoy being with. You can make a real change in your community. And you can do it together. And because you are working as a group, no one is overburdened or burned out. You contribute when you can contribute. It's ok to step back, because others will step forward."

Today there are 59 partners, and growing, involved in Waterloo Region, representing some of the best the community has to offer. Half of the partners hail from Waterloo's technology sector; the other half represents a broad range of professions and industries from accounting and law firms, to community leaders and volunteers, construction firms, educators and parents. Each partner makes a minimum tax deductible $5,000 donation, but marries that financial contribution with some level of professional involvement. Partners may offer up advice to SVP's leadership, serve on an SVP committee, and/or work hands on with one of the "investee" charities. The SVP Waterloo team recently introduced a new tier of partnership for young entrepreneurs under the age of 35, allowing younger business people to contribute to the partnership for an investment of just $2500.

"The whole notion of SVP is built around a familiar model to many in the tech industry - venture capitalism," explains Jennifer King, Executive Director of SVP Waterloo Region. "Just as a VC takes an investment position in a promising start-up and plays an active role in steering that company's future, SVP takes an investment position in the non-profits we invest in. We take six months to conduct careful due diligence looking at a candidate organization's leadership, ideas, and governance to understand how they work and to determine if they are a good fit with our model. We take a long-term view, working with a non-profit for anywhere from three to five years. And our partners take an active role -- working with our beneficiaries on specific projects with the goal of making a tangible difference to the organization and to the community it serves."

Each SVP member organization operates autonomously within an international network that is now represented in 31 cities in the US, Canada, India, Japan, Australia, and soon, in England, Ireland and China. SVP members have collectively contributed more than $46 million to charity, and invested thousands of hours of strategic volunteering benefiting more than 550 non-profit organizations. SVP members select their own mandate for investment. SVP Waterloo Region has so far elected to focus on children and youth, selecting two partners to date: Strong Start, a community initiative focused on child literacy; and Woolwich Counseling Centre's child and youth therapy program.

"Our members felt very strongly that an investment in children and youth will yield long-term payback in our community," says Jennifer King. "In establishing our mandate we asked ourselves the questions, 'what do we really care about?,' 'where are the gaps?,' and where can we make a difference?' Every answer led us back to the community's younger citizens."

SVP's focus on children and youth is a mandate that strongly resonates with SVP partner Mark McArdle, a technology executive, active member of the start-up community, and a proud father of two. "The focus on youth is something that I felt very strongly about as a dad," says McArdle. "As we all know, if you can set a child off on the right foot in life, that early start most often leads to lifelong success. But not all kids have the same opportunities available to them. Through our work with Strong Start and Woolwich Counseling Centre, we're able to help close that gap, and help more kids succeed."

McArdle is currently working with SVP Waterloo Region non-profit Strong Start, advising Executive Director Machelle Denison on their marketing strategy and the development of a program to introduce technology into the organization's children's literacy programs.

"SVP came into our world at the perfect time," says Machele Denison. "We are a grassroots organization that began here in Waterloo Region, but have broad ambitions to grow - allowing us to help more kids, more schools, more community centre partners. We had a good sense of where we wanted to go, but how to get there was less clear. The SVP organization and its partners in just two years have made an immense contribution to our organization. They take a holistic approach to working with us, with the knowledge that this isn't about a quick fix. They have taken the time to get to know our organization, identify the gaps to be filled. And they aren't just doing the analysis and telling us what we need to do. The partners are stepping in and helping do the work. That's huge for a small organization with limited resources. SVP is providing us with the additional capacity to tackle multiple projects, do them well, and not neglect our core focus, which is the literacy programming we deliver to kids in thisRegion."

Denison points to the work SVP partners have invested in helping Strong Start develop their board governance policy, "comprehensive board governance is foundational and an essential building block in readying our organization to scale. SVP Waterloo Region and the partners are giving us the confidence, courage and tools to think long term."

Part of the power of SVP is in the network the organization brings together. By connecting non-profits to experienced business people in the community, SVP is able to tap into a wealth of experience and expertise on behalf of its non-profits - who cannot traditionally afford to hire in executive firepower. But SVP's network extends beyond its partners as well. By virtue of its location within the Waterloo Accelerator Centre (AC), SVP Waterloo region has also been able to extend its reach and capabilities one step further to neighboring technology start-ups residing within the AC and the Communitech Hub. Over the last year, SVP has forged three alliances with early stage companies building technologies for the non-profit world. SVP has partnered with iNot4Profit to develop its very own app. It is now working with Organimi, a creator of dynamic org charts to virtually connect its partners, and has begun to use decision.io a technology created by Marmot Labs, to facilitate partner decision-making and introduce greater transparency into its collaborative decision process.

"I like to say we are small but mighty," says Jennifer King. "As a global organization, SVP has learned how to tap into the power of leverage. We are able to leverage our partners to bring know-how to our non-profits. We have been able to craft a new model of engagement to pool our resources - financially and professionally to do more as a group and make a bigger difference. The nature of philanthropy is changing. People want to go beyond writing a cheque. They want to be involved. And we're not only reflective of this change, we're at the forefront."

"I wanted to do more than just write a cheque. I wanted to feel connected. Feel I was making a difference. Social Venture's approach really resonated with me as a business person and as a dad."

- Mark McArdle, technology executive and entrepreneur.

Check out the video below to watch Unleashing Potential- an SVP Partners Video.